I’ve used these letters in 2019 to write about the Synod of Dort which met 400 years ago to contend for the truth of the gospel against the errors of the Remonstrants (who were also known as Arminians). They published their views in 1610 and the reformers at Dort responded with the Canons of Dort.
I’ve already written about four of the five main headings of the Canons of Dort. The fifth is about the perseverance of the saints. Is it possible for a true believer to fall away from Christ and salvation? The Remonstrants claimed to be undecided on the matter, saying they needed more time to come to a definite position. However, ever since the days of John Calvin, reformed theologians always had a very clear and definite conviction about this doctrine and their teaching on the perseverance of the saints is summarised in the fifth heading.
The first point the reformers made was that when God regenerates his people, he frees them from the dominion of sin. Sin is no longer our master, because we have the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us and enables us to resist sin and who makes us more and more willing and able to do God’s will. However, as we all know from experience, we are not completely freed from the power of sin in this life. We continue to disobey God every day. Indeed, even our best deeds are spoiled by sin so that we never keep the commandments perfectly.
The second point the reformers at Dort made was that our ongoing weakness in this life humbles us and causes us to flee continually to Christ for forgiveness. In addition, because of our weakness, we need to seek the help of the Holy Spirit by prayer and to make use of the means to grace to enable us to resist sin. Furthermore, because of our weakness in this life, believers long for the life to come when we will be made perfect.
The third point is that we would be totally overwhelmed by sin and temptation if it were not for the Lord who enables us to persevere in the faith. By ourselves, we are weak and liable to fall away from Christ. But God is powerful and he will keep true believers in the faith. So, when the reformers talk about the perseverance of the saints, we need to realise that the only reason a believer is able to persevere is because of the Lord.
Points four to eight are to do with sin in the lives of God’s people. According to point four, believers ‘by their own fault’ may be seduced by their own sinful desires. For this reason, we need to watch and pray so that we are not ‘carried off by the flesh, the world, and Satan … into serious and dreadful sins.’ The reformers mention the examples of David and Peter: David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to be killed; and Peter who denied knowing the Lord Jesus three times. Nevertheless even such sins cannot separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
According to point five, our sins have consequences in this life. For instance, by our sins we offend God and grieve the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Our sins also make us guilty before God and they wound our conscience. Think of Peter who wept bitterly after he denied the Lord three times. And so, we ought to turn from our sins in repentance.
The sixth point is that though our sins offend God and grieve the Holy Spirit, the Lord will never take away his Spirit from anyone who believes, even when we fall into serious sin. Furthermore, though he may let us fall into sin, he will not take away our justification (by which he pardons our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight). Despite our sins, we remain part of his family and he will also keep us from committing the unpardonable sin.
According to the seventh point, the Lord prevents the seed of regeneration — planted in us by the Spirit through his word — from dying. He will also enable believers to turn from their sins in repentance and to seek his forgiveness. When we do so, we once again discover that he is merciful. And having received his mercy, we can continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
In their eighth point, the reformers at Dort once again made the point that believers would fall away from the faith if left to themselves. However, God will not let us fall away. Our salvation depends not on ourselves, but on God the Father’s eternal plan, and on the work of Christ on our behalf, and on the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The reformers at Dort then went on to make clear that believers can have assurance of their salvation. In other words, instead of not knowing whether they are truly saved, so that they are filled with doubts and fears about their eternal state, believers can know for sure in this life that they are saved. This certainty does not come from special revelation from God (as if God spoke to us directly), but it comes from faith in God’s promises contained in his word. It also comes from the testimony of the Holy Spirit who uses God’s word to convince us that we are children of God. Another sign that we are God’s children is our desire to do God’s will. Those who don’t believe don’t care whether they are obedient or not, but true believers want to please the Lord. So, by believing God’s promises, by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and by the testimony of a changed life, God convinces us that we are truly saved and can look forward to everlasting life.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that our assurance of salvation will sometimes be weaker than at other times because we’re often tempted to doubt God’s promises. But we can count on God to strengthen our faith once again.
Well-meaning Christians sometimes reject the doctrine of our perseverance, because they think it will make believers careless. They say that if we know we can’t lose our salvation, then what’s to stop us from doing what we like? However, the reformers dismissed such an objection, saying that the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is the ‘true root of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in all afflictions, ardent prayers, constancy in cross-bearing and in confessing the truth, and solid joy in God.’ These things arise because of our gratitude to God who has promised to keep us in the faith despite our weaknesses. Indeed, those who have been restored after falling into serious sin become more careful to walk in his ways so as not to fall again.
According to point 14, God uses the means of grace to keep us in the faith. That is, he uses the preaching of his word and the sacraments to strengthen our faith in the Saviour and to bring us to repentance when we fall. This is why it’s so important for the Lord’s people to attend the services of worship. God uses what we do on Sundays to strengthen our faith.
Finally, though Satan hates this doctrine and an unbelieving world derides it and hypocrites abuse it, true believers love this doctrine because it reveals God’s glory and it’s a great comfort to us.
There are many places in the Scriptures which reveal this doctrine to us. Space prevents me from listing all of them, but there’s room for two. First of all, there’s 1 Corinthians 1:8, where Paul says that God ‘will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ And then there’s Philippians 1:6: ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ Believers may take comfort in the news that though we are weak, the Lord our God is strong. And though we are often unfaithful, he is faithful forever.